Tag Archives: Latin Literature

Caveat Regnator: A Translated Excerpt from Seneca’s Trojan Women

Andromache and Astyanax, The Fall of Troy.

What is it like being an advisor to a powerful, narcissistic leader whose main interest lies not in serving his constituency but instead in acting and performing for his sycophantic groupees?

No, I’m not talking about the current state of American politics.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 B.C. in Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder and served as the emperor Nero’s closest advisor.   When he was brought to Rome at an early age to obtain an education that would prepare him for a political career, one wonders if he ever imaged that his fate would be entangled with the affairs of two volatile and difficult emperors. In 41 A.D., during the first year of the reign of Claudius, Seneca was condemned to death by the senate on the charge of having committed adultery with Julia Livilla, Claudius’s niece. Claudius, however, spared his life and banished him to the island of Corsica where he spent the next eight years.

Seneca was recalled early in 49 A.D. by Agrippina, Claudius’s new wife, in order that he might become the tutor of her sixteen-year-old son Nero. When Nero ascended to the throne, Seneca acted as the Emperor’s chief advisor for at least five years. Somewhere in the midst of all of this Seneca managed to write treaties dealing with moral philosophy, volumes of private letters, a work dealing with terrestrial and atmospheric phenomena, a satire on the deification of the emperor Claudius and even several tragedies. Scholars have debated for centuries about when this influential rhetorician and adherent of the Stoic sect found time to compose these tragedies.

Seneca’s extant dramatic works include the Hercules Furens, Phoenissae, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes, Hercules Oetaeus, and the Troades. My post and translation today focuses on the Troades. This play deals with the aftermath of Troy’s destruction, as the Trojan women are standing amongst the ruins of their city and waiting to hear which Greek hero will claim them as plunder. Andromache desperately tries to save her son Astyanax by hiding him inside the tomb of her husband Hector. After Andromache is forced to give up her son, he is thrown by the Greek soldiers from the last remaining citadel of the city. Achilles’ ghost also demands the sacrifice of Polyxena in this play and the pathetic account of her death is related to us in the messenger’s speech. Seneca drew his subject matter from a long tradition of Greek plays that include Euripides’ Trojan Women and Hecuba and Sophocles’ Polyxena, as well as the epic tradition that includes Homer, Vergil and Ovid.

In this opening scene in the Troades, Hecuba, the once proud queen of this glorious city,  has a warning for any leader who takes his power for granted.  No wonder the Greeks were afraid of her (translation is my own):

Any ruler who has faith in his power and who reigns supreme in his grand palace and does not fear the fickle gods and gives his trusting spirit to happy matters, let him look at me and at you, Troy:  Never has fortune presented a greater proof that the haughty stand on weak ground.  The pillar of powerful Asia has been overthrown, that extraordinary work of the gods; and even though many came to her aid—Rhesus who drinks from the cold waters of the Tanais, spreading its sevenfold mouths, and the neighboring Amazon who, looking over the wandering Scythians, strikes the shores of Pontus with her unmarried troops, and Memnon son of Aurora who first, greeting the newborn day, mixes the warm Tigris with the red colored sea—Troy still falls by the sword,  Pergamum collapses on itself.  And the highly adorned walls lie heaped in ruins with scorched roofs.  Flames surround the royal palace and the entire house of Assaracus is smoldering.  The fire does not hold back the greedy hands of the victor:  Troy, as she burns, is torn to pieces, and the sky is hidden by the billowing smoke.  This black day, overcome by a dense cloud, is covered with the embers of Troy.

This has always been one of my favorite passages in Latin literature to translate.  Hecuba stands among the burning ruins of her once grand city and, before she laments her sad fate, gives a stern warning to any ruler who might feel secure in his position.  How very Stoic of her.

Maybe this warning does aptly apply to current American (and global) politics?

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Love Has Finally Arrived: My Translation of Sulpicia

Euterpe, Muse of Music and Poetry

Since it is Women in Translation month, I thought that it would be interesting to write a little post and offer my own translation of the only female  poet from Ancient Rome whose work has survived.  Sulpicia, born during the Augustan period and a contemporary of Horace, Ovid and Vergil,  wrote six love elegies which were not published on their own, but instead appended to the volume of poetry penned by Tibullus.  Even nowadays her poems can only be found in the Loeb, for instance, as part of the Corpus Tibullianum.  For many years scholars have denied the fact that a woman could have written these poems but it is now widely accepted that it was the daughter of upper class Roman citizens, connected to Augustus’s inner circle, who composed these elegies.  Unfortunately, more recent studies have criticized Sulpicia’s poems and judged them as inferior to her contemporaries because they are missing the literary allusions that are prevalent in other elegiac poets.

After translating Sulpicia’s poems, however, it is evident that she was keenly aware of the elegiac forms of her fellow Roman poets.  Regardless of what one might think of their literary merit, Sulpicia’s six poems, addressed to her lover Cerinthus, are the only opportunity for us to sneak a glimpse into the mind and heart of a Roman female from her own perspective.

I offer my translation of Sulpicia Poem XIII in which she confirms that the rumors about her love are more than just rumors and she wishes to cast aside all veils and embrace her joys and affections:

Tandem venit amor, qualem texisse pudori
quam nudasse alicui sit mihi fama magis.
Exorata meis illum Cytherea Camenis
adtulit in nostrum deposuitque sinum.
Exsolvit promissa Venus: mea gaudia narret,
dicetur siquis non habuisse sua.
Non ego signatis quicquam mandare tabellis,
ne legat id nemo quam meus ante, velim,
sed peccasse iuvat, vultus conponere famae
taedet: cum digno digna fuisse ferar.

Love has finally arrived, and a rumor that I tried to conceal
this kind of love would bring me much more shame than
revealing it openly. I begged Venus with my poems and
she brought him right to me and placed him in my lap.
Venus has kept her promises.  If anyone is said to be lacking
in his own happiness, then let him speak about my joys.
I wouldn’t wish to entrust anything to wax tablets for fear
that someone else might read about my feelings before my
love. It pleases me to have engaged in this transgression;
I am tired of wearing a mask because of this rumor.
Let it be said that we have been together,
each of us equally worthy of the other.

I love the tone of this poem, that Sulpicia doesn’t care about rumors and she wants to free herself of societal expectations placed on her.  The digno and digna in the last line is my favorite part of the elegy—both she and her lover are “worthy of” and “fitting for” one another.

What is everyone else reading for #WITMonth?

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Let us Live and Let us Love: My Translation and Interpretation of Catullus Poem 5

512px-john_reinhard_weguelin_lesbiaLesbia by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1878.

A dear friend who is also a classicist read my essay for the Seagull Books Catalog and pointed out that my translation of Ovid was so literal and awkward that most readers probably wouldn’t understand its meaning.  I spend my life eliciting grammatically precise, literal translations from my students so that I can assess their learning of Latin syntax.  But his message inspired me to stretch my translation skills beyond the literal and to come up with passages that readers could actually appreciate and enjoy.  Of course I also don’t want to stray so far away from the Latin that I completely abandon all rules of syntax and grammar, so it will be interesting and challenging for me to strike that balance.  I’ve decided to do a series of translations of Latin authors on my blog that will be dedicated to my friend who ever so gently gave me some suggestions for my Ovid translation.  Or, when I become frustrated with a particularly difficult Latin passage, I will blame him.

Since I am teaching a Catullus course in the spring semester, and he is my favorite Latin lyric poet, I will begin my translation series with one of his most popular poems. Gaius Valerius Catullus (c.84-54B.C.) had a passionate love affair with a woman named Clodia.  But Clodia was no ordinary woman.  Her family was of old, Patrician, noble stock and she was married to an older, prominent and powerful man, the proconsul Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer.  As was the case with most upper class Roman marriages, Clodia’s was arranged for political and economic gains and there was no real love or affection in the marriage.  But she does find love with Catullus, who wrote several poems about her and their relationship.  I imagine him spending hours perfecting this masterpiece composed in hendecasyllabic meter and sending it off to her in secret.  And, just in case it might be intercepted by the wrong person, he disguises his love with the pseudonym “Lesbia.”

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Let’s live and let’s love, My Clodia,
And let’s consider worthless
The gossip of crabby old men!
Suns rise and set:
When the fleeting daylight finally sets for us,
We must spend one perpetual night together.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then another thousand kisses,
Then a second hundred,
And then give me another thousand kisses
And then give me a hundred kisses.
Finally, when we have kissed many thousands of times,
Let’s mix up the number of those kisses
So that an envious man will not be able to put a curse
On us if he finds out the exact number of our kisses.

There are, of course, more salacious and explicit poems that Catullus composed about Clodia.  But I find that the subtlety and simplicity of Poem 5 makes it particularly erotic.  The standard interpretation of lines 1-6 are is the theme of carpe diem (seize the day) , with reference to our mortality but I have always viewed these lines rather differently.  The chiasmus in the first line (vivamus mea Lesbia amemus) brings to mind an image of Catullus and Clodia intertwined in bed among tangled sheets, eager for their much anticipated  sexual encounter.  He begins his poem, and his encounter with her,  slowly and languidly with the hortatory subjunctives (vivamus-“Let’s live” and amemus-“Let’s love”) and builds up to the intense immediacy of the imperative da -“give”-as he demands many kisses from her.   He is in the throws of fervent lovemaking when he uses the periphrastic (we must sleep for one perpetual night) and the anaphorae— the repetition of deinde, centum, mille—mimic the rhythm of their lovemaking.   And finally, when he has climaxed, he comes back to the more languid subjunctive forms (sciamus, possit, sciat), and suggests that the intimate details of their encounter, the exact number of their shared kisses, be mixed up so that no one will know and spoil their furtive encounters.

The hyperbole in this poem–“give me  a hundred kisses, then a thousand,” etc.–, which many have found silly, demonstrates just how much he loved her and was willing to risk to be with her.  They had to be very careful to meet secretly at the home of a trusted, mutual friend.  Catullus mentions in the first line of Poem 5 that men are gossiping about their love affair and in the last line comes back to the idea that there are those who envy the pair and wish them harm.  I imagine Catullus as a man of means, he was a wealthy Roman with high social status, who was willing to use and even risk those means to be with Clodia.  Some might accuse me of being a bad feminist, but I greatly admire Catullus, a strong man who would move heaven and earth and defy convention to spend time with the woman he loved.

I also imagine that Catullus was an infinitely patient man as weeks and even months must have gone by in between the times he was able to spend with Clodia.  When he does get to spend the night with her he doesn’t want it to end and his wish that they be suspended in one perpetual night together demonstrates how few and far between their trysts must have been. In an age of instantaneous, electronic communication and social media we seem to have lost our patience for anything and anyone who doesn’t give us immediate pleasure all the time.  I am realistic enough and old enough, some might say jaded enough, to know that an enduring love like Catullus’s is extremely rare or non-existent in an age where we so quickly swipe left, delete, unfriend, block, ignore, hide and cast aside.

Catullus’s poetry is deceptively simple and every time I translate his poems I find another layer of meaning.  Up next, I will attempt a translation of Catullus Poem 7 which is the companion piece to Poem 5 and also involves kisses.  In addition, I will explore the influence of the Greek, Alexandrian poets on Catullus’s style.   For anyone who wants to read all of Catullus’s 116 poems in translation, the Oxford World’s Classics Text by Guy Lee and the Loeb by F.W. Cornish are my favorite translations.  The Loeb translation is a bit archaic as it was published in 1913, but I find the style fitting for Catullus.

My friend who inspired these posts suggested that I translate one of  Horace’s Odes, which are nearly impossible to render into mellifluous English.  I would also like to translate some of Seneca’s Trojan Women and Ovid’s Heroides.  I would love to have more suggestions for Latin authors to translate, so please leave some requests in the comments for me!

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A Father’s Day Review: Seamus Heaney’s Translation of Aeneid VI

Heaney Aeneid VIWhen I bought this translation of Aeneid VI and read Heaney’s introduction, I thought it would be a fitting review on the blog for Father’s Day.  In the introduction to the translation, Heaney says that he gravitated towards this book of the Aeneid when his own father who passed away shortly before he began his translation.  The Aeneid is full of father and son relationships and Heaney recognizes that Aeneid VI in particular highlights the special relationship between Vergil’s hero and his father Anchises.

As Troy is burning because of the Greek treachery of the horse, Aeneas manages to escape the city while carrying his elderly father on his back.  Aeneas could have easily left the old man behind, but he would never have considered abandoning his parent.  As Aeneas is sailing the Mediterranean in search of a new home, Anchises eventually succumbs to a peaceful and natural death.  In Book VI, Aeneas tells the priestess of Apollo that his greatest wish is to see his father and have one more conversation with him.

In these shadowy marshes the Aceron floods

To the surface, vouchsafe me one look,

One face-to-face meeting with my dear father

Point out the road, open the holy doors wide.

On these shoulders I bore him through flames

And a thousand enemy spears. In the thick of fighting

I saved him and he was at my side then

On all my sea-crossings, battling tempests and tides

A man in old age, worn out, not meant for duress.

Most men would not have dared to venture into the land of the dead to have a last conversation, but Aeneas is no ordinary man and the relationship with his father was no ordinary relationship.  Aeneas must first visit the Sibyl of Cumae, the priestess of Apollo, to get instructions on how to approach and gain access to the land of the dead.  Aeneas knows that this undertaking is dangerous and that very few men or heroes have succeeded in traveling down to the underworld and then regaining access to the land of the living.

Aeneas sees awful things on his journey to the nether regions.  He witnesses countless souls standing on the banks of the river Styx trying to gain passage on Charon’s boat to bring them across to their final, peaceful resting places.  He also witnesses the souls of men being tortured and punished in Tartarus; these men were horrible and wicked in their earthly lives and the Sybil tells him that the punishments being doled are fitting for their crimes.  But witnessing all of this sorrow and horror is worth it to Aeneas just to have that one final conversation with his father.

When Aeneas finally sees Anchises, his father is in the Elysian Fields, the place where good and kind and blessed souls wander in peace.  Anchises’ role, like that of any good father,  becomes that of mentor, of cheerleader, of counselor to his son who still has many challenges in front of him.  Anchises shows Aeneas that the result of his efforts and tribulations will be a progeny which the entire world will celebrate and revere.  It is Anchises’ encouraging words that Aeneas uses as inspiration to embark on the second half of his journey, on the part of the story to which Vergil refers as arma.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid VI is poetic and beautiful.  It adheres to the spirit of the original Latin while rendering Vergil’s words into a graceful and elegant story in English.  For those who have wanted to read Vergil’s epic poem but find the idea of reading all twelve books too daunting, Heaney’s translation of Aeneid VI serves as the perfect introduction to this Latin classic.

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